So You're Glad to Be Home?

I

As the little boat, which for some strange reason not quite clear to anyone on board had gone halfway round the world on its way to New York, at last approached Halifax, the returning Americans made a disconcerting discovery.

They were not a homogeneous lot. Among them were a Southern boy who had spent a year studying at Poitiers and a retired New York physician and his wife who had wintered in Egypt. There were a theatrical producer and a professor of psychology, a bride and groom just out of the cradle, and several traveling salesmen. There was a lady whose town house was on Spruce Street, whose country house was on the Main Line, and who was a member of the Colonial Dames. There was a lady clerk from a government bureau and a gentle if impecunious family. There was a former editor of a garden magazine who had been spending the winter in the Basque country. Among them all there was no one who could claim more than a bowing acquaintance with the Latin Quarter or the Dome, or who had read Proust all through, or the later work of Joyce. And yet, as the boat passed the oil tanks and the factories that line the banks of Halifax harbor and make that far Canadian port look so like its southern sisters, these non-homogeneous but quite distinctive Americans, most of whom had all but come over in the Mayflower, made the disconcerting discovery that not one of them was glad to be coming home.

The old doctor made it first, and as the breezes from the Arctic Circle swept the cowering deck he stopped in his endless walking to ask now one person, now another, ‘So you’re glad to be getting home?’ ‘Glad!’ the answer would come to him in amused, or weary, or scornful tones, as the person interrogated cast a saddened glance at the shambling buildings of the harbor. To be sure, Halifax is n’t our country, but it looks enough like it to belong to that smaller part of the continent for which we complacently preëmpt the name American.

The old doctor was disturbed. The editor from the Basque country was disturbed. They themselves were unregenerate. They were sorry that in two days more they would be groping up the fog in the North River, and they admitted blatantly that they would leave the land of the free again as soon as they could. But someone ought to be glad to be home, and nobody was. Not the most colorless, not the most spineless. Not the most wedded to bathtubs and Heywood Broun. Clearly, something was wrong. What was it, we asked ourselves as we left the breakfast table to look without animation at Nantucket lightship awash in the trough of the waves.

There were those, of course, who suggested the Prohibition Amendment, but they did it half-heartedly or desperately, like a man catching at a last straw, or like a cancer patient who hopefully suggests to his doctor that perhaps he’s a little bilious. For biliousness can be cured and Prohibition can be voted out or eluded, but what could be done with those factories defiling the harbor side, or with a town that has cut down forests to build rows of houses not one of which is endurable to look at?

‘The house in which I was born,’ the former editor said, ‘has been torn down to make room for a garage. The front lawn is the salesroom, the tennis court is the repair shop. The woods road I used to walk along to school is lined with hot-dog stands and gasoline tanks and the rusty skeletons of abandoned cars. If my old home had been in France it would be standing yet, and the trees my great-grandfather planted would be nodding sedately at the trees my grandfather planted. And there would be vines on the walls and flowers in the beds that had been laid out in the eighteenth century, and pleasant neighbors near by. All our pleasant neighbors have fled before the hot-dog stands.’

‘Where have they gone?’ the old doctor asked. And then a queer look came over his face. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘I’m one of them. Not one of your old neighbors, but somebody’s old neighbor who for the last dozen years has been nobody’s old neighbor at all. This winter I lived in hotels in Egypt, and last winter I lived in hotels on the Riviera, and next winter I shall live in hotels in Algiers. And when we land to-morrow I’ll go to a hotel in New York.’

‘The Seine is a little creek compared with the Hudson,’ the boy from Poitiers said, ‘ but look what they have made of it!’

It was n’t necessary to put into words what ‘they’ have made of it. All the returning Americans could see in their minds’ eyes the rows of chestnut trees on either side that gracious river. They could see the stone embankment on which men fished and sketched and loafed and read in the very heart of the city, the little bateaux mouches with their loads of unhurried passengers, scurrying over the surface of the river like water beetles, the long narrow barges with a man in the stern holding the big rudder, and tousled heads of children looking out of windows, and a bobbed-haired, big-hipped wife hanging out the washing. They could see people loitering in front of the bookstalls, whose colored prints and colored bindings looked so gay against the greenish-amber water. On one side was the long pleasant façade of the Louvre, whose gardens stretched to the gardens of the Tuileries, whose gardens looked across at the gardens of the Invalides. In the distance, towers and domes rose here and there against the soft spring sky with its haze of new spring leaves.

‘And look what we’ve done to the Hudson!’ the young man from Poitiers continued bitterly. Again no words were needed, for we could all see as if a movie film were unrolled before our eyes the blackened warehouses, the smoky factories, the shunting trains that desolate both banks of one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. We knew that from the moth-eaten little park at the Battery to the beginning of Riverside there is no spot from which the citizen of New York can stroll along his river — although, like the Seine, it flows through the heart of his town — unless he should venture hardily on to some produce wharf in competition with the trucks.

‘New York has fantastic beauties such as Paris never dreamed,’ I said, struggling to throw off the oppression of this appalling contrast, for I was born in the Middle West, and nearly everyone born in the Middle West at least starts life with the conviction that to like another country better than one’s own is a trifle light and giddy, if not positively wanton. Conscientiously I set about trying to remember the sun pouring itself unexpectedly into the crevasses of skyscrapers as it pours itself into the ravines of a mountainside, and the white towers of Fifth Avenue seen across Central Park. Though of course I don’t live in Central Park, nor could I ever afford to live in one of the buildings that front it, while almost anyone in Paris can afford a room looking out on the gracious vistas of the river, or on some park. Tolerably pleasant surroundings in New York are restricted to such an extremely small area that they can only be purchased by the millionaire, while in Paris, Rome, or Florence it is difficult to find an unattractive spot.

‘Of course everybody has a chance in America,’ the groom just out of the cradle said hopefully to help me. ‘And to get that I suppose we ought to be willing to put up with smoke and grime and litter and all.’

‘A chance for what?’ the former editor asked, and nobody answered her. We were talking to keep up our courage and knew it, and the others knew it. We were n’t glad to be coming home. Though I had expected to be, and had n’t been far from sharing the attitude of those of our native land who look on expatriated Americans with not a little amusement and superiority. The place for Americans, so this homespun theory goes, is in America, except when they’re traveling, of course. But it’s one thing to travel and another to hate to come home.

II

How grievously we erred in this respect we learned as soon as we left the protecting cosmopolitanism of the boat.

‘I bet you’re glad to get back,’my Danish window washer said to me two days later in my New York apartment. ‘No? But you came back. Everybody comes back. I always come back myself, though I’ve traveled all over the world.’

‘Why do you do it?’ I asked.

‘Yes, that’s just what my mother says to me,’ he said. ‘Why do you do it?’

‘Is it the job?’ I asked, knowing in advance that it was n’t the job, for he has a supreme indifference to the job, and in this he’s more American than his accent.

‘Well, it’s easier to change from one thing to another,’ he said, scratching his head thoughtfully. ‘In the old country, when you leave one job it’s sometimes very hard to get another. There’s something in that.’ But the idea was evidently so new to him that it was n’t particularly convincing as an explanation.

‘Well, it’s this sort of thing,’ he said. ‘You and me talking together. If I was to go into a lady’s house in the old country to wash her windows and start talking to her, she might n’t like it at all.’

‘Nor in many places here,’ I added mentally, remembering the pleasant waitress in the little restaurant of Lafon son Caneton on the Quai Voltaire, who welcomed us every evening to our corner table with a hospitality as gracious and convincing as that of a friend entertaining us in her own home. Remembering a Tory English lady who, when we stopped to inquire our way in an Italian mountain village, and discovered that English words in an unmistakable English accent were coming out of the shawled and toothless head of our informant, seized the hands grasping the shawl in both her own and patted them. ‘Well, my dear, so you are living here?’ she said, and the two launched into Sussex reminiscences as if they were long-lost friends.

‘Perhaps, perhaps,’ I said, shaking my head doubtfully at the window washer, and looking past him to the narrow, littered, ugly street that seemed so strange to me.

Strange to me, the street on which my own house stands! Literally strange, because during my absence it had been torn up in order to widen it a few inches, and all the façades of the houses opposite had been changed. It would indeed have been matter for astonished comment if, after an absence of four months, I had found my neighborhood looking recognizably as I left it, since New York is continually destroying itself to build itself higher and bigger. But strange, too, in a deeper, more significant sense, and perhaps here was the explanation of the nostalgia, the overpowering homesickness for Europe that had oppressed us as we neared home. For we had left a world in which man is still the central figure, and had returned to one in which he has become definitely subordinate to the machine and that devouring growth we call the Industrial System. We had left the sort of world we knew as children and which formed the background for the imaginative atmosphere man begins to breathe from the first birth of his consciousness, and had come to something new and strange.

That world of our youth, still to be seen in Europe, was one in which man could have all the satisfactions and stimulations of living in a city near congenial friends, without exiling himself from natural things. The sky was not shut away from him by towering buildings. He was not ignorant of the change of the seasons, from lack of trees on which to watch them come and go. He was not ignorant of the sound of the wind, because there were no leaves to bend under it. Birds sang in his city garden and sunshine streamed in his windows.

How radically all this has changed one can perhaps realize most quickly by comparing New York and Paris. Suppose a strip of parkway extended along the Hudson from the Battery to Dyckman Street. Suppose broad, treeshaded boulevards joined this strip with Fifth Avenue. Suppose, beginning at some point around 34th Street, Fifth Avenue itself were lined on either side with double rows of trees, with chairs and tables under them and a wide space to stroll, as is the Champs Elysées. And suppose that, almost at the point where it enters our charming but narrow and toylike Central Park, it swept into a real forest like the Bois de Boulogne. Suppose in addition that smaller parks and charming gardens greeted your eye all over the city, and you have some faint notion of the difference between a new and an old world city.

Of course I had been conscious of the change before. I had seen our few widely scattered public gardens wither from poison and neglect, or had actually seen them scrapped to make way for new subway terminals. I had even read books and articles that measured and forecast the change. But its approach, though rapid enough, had been filtered into my consciousness day by day and week by week. I had grown accustomed to being without sunlight in the city, without solitude in the country, without a room of my own or a garden to stroll in, to breathing air so poisonous with gasoline fumes and the dust that hangs in a cloud over New York that I waked every morning with a headache and an overwhelming sense of oppression. All this I had accepted as part of the rather onerous conditions of living. And then by the mere crossing of the Atlantic I had left it all behind. For, although Europe is as up-to-date as we are in scientific discoveries, in medical care and all the things that go to make life comfortable and safe, it is as yet only very slightly industrialized. Even its greatest cities have trees and grass and flowers and sunshine and leisure and pleasantness. And, returning to New York, I saw in one revealing flash how hideous is the world we have been so eagerly building. The long trek in prairie schooners, the daily fortitudes and renunciations and endurances of pioneer life, the high hopes and ideals, had brought us to this mechanistic desert.

III

‘But it’s the world of the future,’ my friends tell me impatiently, disgusted to find in me this naïve atavistic tendency.

And of course they are justified in their impatience if I fail to see ‘the world of the future’ just because it is new, the ability to appreciate beauty in new forms being one of the surest evidences of one’s own refusal to capitulate to death. But it is fatuous to think a thing is beautiful just because it is new. And it is degenerate to accept complacently a future world worse than the one we’ve known.

‘The style is always beautiful,’ a friend said to me pontifically this winter when I inveighed against the not wholly disinterested desire of Paris designers to turn women into crossing sweepers again. If she were right, the barbarian nose ring must be beautiful, and those scores of stiff upstanding braids into which fuzzy hair was clamped not so long ago. But of course she did n’t mean what she said, though what she said has influenced her conduct because she thinks it is what she means. She meant to say that style is always beautiful, and that is a very different thing.

Style is at any rate always interesting, though we all have our preferences among styles. And considered abstractly, as a stylistic performance, New York is one of the wonders of the world. I am, by the way, considering New York in particular simply because it is the first of our great cities to eliminate almost all traces of a preindustrial age, and because the others are imitating it as rapidly as they can.

‘The mere mass of it excites me,’ a painter said to me. ‘Just driving through its streets thrills me. To see it and try to compass it emotionally is a great experience. To see it for the first time is like being born again.’

‘But as a place to live in?’ I asked.

‘Oh no! It’s impossible to live in,’ she agreed, and I remembered that she lives in a houseboat on Staten Island.

How impossible it is as a place to live in is partially expressed by the fact that Manhattan loses population every year. People are running away from its abstract beauties as fast as they can, and this in spite of the fact that in leaving it they must give up most of those very pleasures and stimulations of city life that are among the chief satisfactions of civilized people. They are running away so wildly that they almost forget to ask where they are going.

For choice they have the suburbs and the country. If they select wellestablished or fashionable suburbs, they will be lucky if their neighbors speak to them after a residence of ten years; and if they pick out easy-going and helter-skelter suburbs, they’ll be lucky if they find any neighbors they want to speak to. For the most part they camp out in shockingly flimsy, inadequate houses, since a man must have $50,000 nowadays to copy an old New England farmhouse decently, and even in rich America most men can’t do that. And in any case there’s not much point in building a house well if at any moment it must be torn down to make room for a new road, or if some chance turn in development ruins its neighborhood before the new trees and shrubs have really started to grow.

If they pick out the country, they must be able to retire from business, or they must be willing to be very poor, since men can’t make a comfortable living in the country any more. And although it is one thing to live without much money in a country like France, where most of the ‘durable satisfactions of life’ can be obtained without it, it is anot her thing to be without money in America, where everything has its cash price. Money is relative. You can live comfortably on a thousand a year if your friends and neighbors have no more. You will be wretched on it if the inadequacies of this sum cut you off from the life about you.

There is the further alternative of the small town, but in the last twenty years so great a chasm has opened between the sort, of people who live in small towns and those who live in cities that the city man in search of the pleasant living conditions of his youth will do well to think long and seriously before he commits himself to the bogs and quicksands of small-town life. Let him be himself just once in some local crisis of local gods, and he will find life very uncomfortable for him. No, few of us will find the pleasant world of our youth in those charming country towns and villages we motor through in summer. They are deep, still ponds of difference in which, more likely than not, we shall drown if we trust ourselves to them. The greater part of us are committed for better or worse to the venture the country made after the Civil War, when it left the towns and built the cities.

There is much to be said for this venture. It has altered the surface of the world more radically than any other recorded change, political or economic, and although much of this alteration has been for the worse, never did any God make such lavish promises to man as this same system.

One of the first books I picked up on my return was the symposium edited by Mr. Beard in which various eminent engineers and technologists predict these possibilities, and then, foreseeing perhaps some antagonism in the creatures to be benefited, assure us that there is nothing in the nature of the machine to cause its present ugly manifestations, that man’s abuse of it is responsible. This is certainly true, and like them I desire intensely to believe that man will eventually wish to reassert his superiority over his mechanical creatures. The picture of Gandhi weaving his hour’s stint each day as he discourses to his followers always makes me think of King Canute commanding the tide to turn back. And yet, as I have gone about naïvely interrogating the people I meet regarding the unanimous ‘ homesickness’ of those returning Americans, ail the responses I get fall into four not particularly helpful categories.

IV

The first, which I suspect represents much the largest class, expresses what seems to me a bewilderingly complacent acceptance of man’s subordination to the machine. Does Industry want the banks of the great river that flows past our city and could be a joy to all who see it? Then Industry must have it and man can do without, for the city exists by and through and for Industry, not by and through and for man. There seems to me something almost masochistic in the admiration with which men of this class look at the great piles of masonry that shut off their sunlight, at the smoke belching into the air.

‘Yeah, this is a vulgar, democratic country,’ one of them grunted at me. It was the same taunt, the same accusation of snobbishness, that has been hurled for years at whoever compares America unfavorably with Europe in any respect. The New Babylon is touchily proud of its height, its size, its noise, its gunmen, its prostitutes, its gamblers, its dirt, its turmoil, its humor.

The second class, also numerically large, is made up of those who fondly believe that New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh are not America. Perhaps they are n’t, in the matter of Prohibition and obscenity and art and rapid transit, but when it comes to the things the Industrial System has done to them, I suspect they’re just the bellwethers of the flock.

Tucked away in a valley in the Vermont hills is a prosperous industrial town to which my mind has turned with pleasure for years because it has always quite consciously given man a position at least of equality with the machine. Its houses rise so precipitously from either side a narrow river bed that the introduction of a steam railroad would completely spoil it as a place to live in. It therefore resolutely refused some thirty years or more ago to permit a railroad to enter, and still ships its products by an electric side line to the nearest station, some six miles away. But in recent years a change has come over its way of thinking. The chief beauty of its village Square, next to the hills that surround it, is furnished by two large elms in its centre. They cast a shade over a large part of the Square, and give it a charming quality that is nowadays chiefly associated in our minds with towns living on their past and guiltless of the prosperity this one boasts. This year, at the annual town meeting, a motion was passed to cut down the two elm trees on the score that they interfere with traffic. In the manner of trees, they take up considerably more room in the air than on the ground. The space saved for traffic will be small indeed, and the Square is in any case a spacious one.

‘Why did you let them do it?’ I asked a friend who lives in the town. ‘Why did n’t you go and fight against it?’

’Because there’s no use fighting any more,’ he said. ‘They must do what they will do. I’ve fought too long and too unaided.’

And there you have the difference between the two worlds beautifully epitomized. A town of five thousand in industrialized America can’t spare a space about twenty feet in circumference in its Square to two beautiful trees. Paris, with its several million population in only very partially industrialized France, has trees scattered delightfully all through its busiest sections, and many of its boulevards are lined with trees.

The third class to which I put my question is fatalistic. Not so large numerically, it is extremely articulate, because it includes to-day most of the intellectuals and artists. Man is a fool and always has been, it says. Give him as dangerous a weapon to play with as the machine and mass production, and you can expect him to make just such a mess of it as he has. You can expect him to forget that the machine exists to save labor, not to increase it, to make life pleasanter, easier, more beautiful, more satisfying. Ralph Flanders observes in the Beard symposium that for the first time in the history of the world man has the opportunity to be civilized without being an exploiter, since our luxuries, our colleges, our leisure, are founded on the machine instead of on helots and serfs. Man has the opportunity! But what a chasm between that pleasant possibility and the facts, even on the material side! Only a rich man in America to-day can afford to live in a well-built house. Every peasant in Italy has a tile roof to his house and plaster-covered stone walls, while even well-to-do Americans must put up with paper or shingle roofs, and few think they can afford stone walls. Only a rich American can afford enough land around his house to protect his sunlight and his privacy. In spite of the savings the machine undoubtedly makes, the poor and middle class of to-day are less able than their grandfathers to purchase civilized living conditions. Let whoever doubts me reconsider for a moment the slums and poorer suburbs of any American city.

The fourth class is numerically small, but there is a horrid ring of conviction about its answer. Yes, it says, we are building inhuman cities and an inhuman world; but they won’t last long. When they get bad enough, man will rise up and overthrow the whole horrible system. He will sweep clean and begin over again. These enthusiasts, being as a rule young and without much historical perspective, forget that after such a sweeping clean there has always ensued a long period, sometimes centuries long, of desolation. Not having the hearty temperament that likes to burn the barn down in order to get the horses out, I can’t welcome their optimistic forecast with much pleasure, especially when I remember that Europe too is about to industrialize itself.

V

The most interesting thing to Europe to-day is America. Europeans are even forgetting to hate us because of the war debts, or to envy us because of the money we throw around, so absorbed have they become in ourselves as a phenomenon. Perhaps for the first time since Lowell noticed it, that certain condescension in foreigners is giving way to a respect that seems to me even more disturbing. They drink our cocktails, they talk our slang, they read our books. They manfully swallow past prejudices and present doubts and admit us to a degree of intimacy that earlier generations of Americans could have crawled on their knees in vain to get.

Paul Morand, who shares the interest, observes that both the respect and the subterranean horror that accompanies it are misdirected. It is not the unique character of the Americans that has made them and their cities what they are, he explains to his European readers in New York, a book whose tremendous vogue gives some faint notion of this intense interest Europe is taking in us to-day. It is the Industrial System. The same system introduced into Europe to-day would produce the same results. He goes on to warn them that, marvelous as many of those results are, the system would ruin Europe. M. Morand is too gallant an admirer of America to explain too closely just what he means by this. Mass production has brought wealth. It has built fabulous cities. New York is its capital, and in New York Morand finds the greatest intellectual activity anywhere in the world. But it will ruin Europe, he says, and I can’t but agree with him. It will wipe out the old Europe as completely as it has wiped out the old America, and, if the analogy holds good, it will substitute for that gracious world something strange and inhuman.

‘Yeah,’ I can imagine the sarcastic patriot who accused me of snobbishness observing at this point. ‘They want to introduce our system because its results are so horrible, don’t they?’

Of course they, like our optimistic engineers, believe its results need n’t be horrible, and of course, like us, they are allured by its prospects of‘easy money,’ its illusory promise of conquering the drudgery of life at last. But there is a far more important and urgent factor than this. No intelligent observer of the last war could fail to see that military supremacy in the future would be dependent on industrial supremacy, that, no matter how valiant its men or competent its leaders, an agricultural country would not in future be able to hold its own in war against an industrialized one. To survive in an industrialized world, Europe must industrialize.

Already Soviet Russia has gone in for industrialization on a grand scale. The possibility that for the first time in the history of the world man can be civilized without being an exploiter, while couched in very different phraseology from hers, still falls in beautifully with her millennial programme; and the advantages of industrialization on the economic and military side are all too obvious to her. Yet, as I have looked at the various industrial films the Soviets have sent over here, I have been wholly unable to share their exultation in their own accomplishment. It seems sadly ironical that so much idealism and sacrifice should be devoted to attaining the dubious goal we have already reached. They believe that they will handle their new wealth more wisely, of course, and so did we.

As yet Russia is the only country to imitate us on a grand scale, but all Europe is already toying with our fire. And if Europe industrializes, the days when we can step from our mechanistic nightmare into the pleasant world of our youth are strictly limited.

America has been the first to permit herself to be devastated by the machine age. The most absorbing question of our generation is this: Can she also, before her devastation spreads too widely, bridle that wild beast and keep it from running amuck over the world?